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canada's role in iraq

Kurdish security forces head to Alton Kupri on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, on Oct. 20, 2017.Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press

The senior envoy for northern Iraq's Kurds – who have spent years honing their military skills under the tutelage of Canadian special forces – is calling on the Trudeau government to intervene in a growing conflict between the ethnically distinct minority and Baghdad.

Falah Mustafa Bakir visits Canada on Friday for the annual Halifax International Security Forum, where he plans to ask Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and other Canadian officials to help mediate tensions in northern Iraq over a referendum in which Kurds voted to separate.

Mr. Bakir, who is also pleading for help from other western governments, says the Kurds feel somewhat forgotten by international allies now that Baghdad is taking steps to assert control of northern Iraq. After all, it was the Kurds, he notes, that halted the march of Islamic State jihadi across Iraq while Baghdad government forces collapsed, removing their uniforms and abandoning their positions.

Read also: Ottawa needs to re-evaluate the mission in Iraq

"We have played a major role in the fight against [Islamic State], but it seems … some people have forgotten this," the envoy, who is foreign minister in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), said in a phone interview.

Mr. Bakir arrives in Canada with a warning, saying if the international community does not assume a role in this dispute, it could lead to chaos that opens the door for extremist forces to re-emerge in Iraq, create more displaced persons and refugees, and disrupt the flow of petroleum from the country.

"I believe the international community has a responsibility," he said, adding that, unless checked, "this instability will provide room for terrorism and extremism to expand. [It] would lead to another wave of displacement and migration, and affect … energy supplies."

The request for help puts Canada in an awkward position. Beginning in November of 2014, it spent nearly three years providing military assistance to the Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga – training and advice that have helped sharpen fighting skills that could one day be turned against Baghdad if an amicable peace cannot be reached.

Mr. Bakir also said the Kurds would welcome more humanitarian aid to handle the tide of people displaced during the Islamic State's drive through the region, and to develop the governing capacity of the KRG.

The semi-autonomous Kurdish region governed by the KRG was a chief bulwark against the spread of Islamic State militants in 2014.

It played a central role in helping arrest the group's advance and driving many of the jihadi from Iraq. Other Western powers also offered the Kurds training and strategic advice during this period.

The independence vote in late September has strained the Kurds' relations with Baghdad and allies. The KRG said nearly 93 per cent voted in favour of sovereignty in what it billed as a non-binding referendum.

In mid-October, forces loyal to Baghdad seized territory held by the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a move interpreted as dealing a blow to Kurdish intentions to strike out as a separate country. The forces acting for Baghdad included Iraqi government troops and Shia militias whom Mr. Bakir said were acting on the wishes of neighbouring Iran.

Canada provided military advice to the Kurds until late October, well after this new conflict had started. Only then did Ottawa suspend the work of Canadian special forces, announcing on Oct. 27 it would only resume when "more clarity exists regarding the interrelationships of Iraqi security forces." Canadian military officials described the move as temporary, but the Department of National Defence has no estimated date for it to resume.

The KRG says more than 5.5 million people live within the region it governs and estimates Iraq has as many eight million people of Kurdish heritage.

Mr. Bakir accuses the Baghdad government of seeking to dismantle the KRG. Iraq's population is about 75 per cent Arab by ethnicity and about 15 per cent to 20 per cent Kurdish.

"We have lost territory and lost control of oil fields," Mr. Bakir said, referring to the outcome of the conflict with Baghdad troops and Shia militias.

He said the Kurds are asking allies to put pressure on Baghdad to freeze hostilities and negotiate a settlement, saying the central government is violating Iraq's relatively new constitution, which he said forbids using force to sort out political differences.

"What we are asking [is that] our partners around the world be actively engaged to ensure that there will be an immediate permanent ceasefire, no use of force, no military advances, withdrawal and reduction of forces," Mr. Bakir said.

He said the Kurds do not want to declare independence unilaterally, but work out a solution with Baghdad. He said reprisals are further hurting his people.

"We do not deserve to be punished. The closure of airports, closure of the border, economic sanctions."

Mr. Bakir said he hopes Canada will one day resume its military advice to the Kurds, but that he understands it cannot continue during this conflict with Baghdad.

"We want our partners in the free world to look at what Kurdistan wants. We want to build a democracy and live in peace."

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